By Brian Volck
…arcadias, utopias, our dear old bag of democracy are alike founded: For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.”
—W.H. Auden, from “Vespers” in “Horae Canonicae”
The Washington Metro’s Blue Line, northbound from Reagan National Airport, takes a looping approach to the District, past the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. I was on my way to meetings near and at the U.S. Capitol, in the city named for the man who, as commanding general, knew better than most how only two institutions constituted the nascent United States during the American Revolution—Congress and the Continental Army—and that both must survive, no matter the human or material cost.
Other institutions and images have since joined them. Not just the U.S., but every nation-state, that historical oddity of remarkably recent invention, needs them to cement scattered individuals into an “imagined community.” In Washington, DC, unifying symbols are legion, the city’s public face.
An Army major, briefcase in hand, boarded the train at the Pentagon station, his service uniform in smart contrast to casual Sunday morning tourists and late churchgoers. In an age of profoundly diminished Christianity, women and men seeking honorable service to something larger than themselves turn more often to the military than ministry.
The Metro car grew noticeably still in the major’s presence. He grasped a pole rather than taking a seat, his grip visibly tightening as the train pulled from the station. He must have departed somewhere along the line, but as the car filled at each stop with new passengers, I lost track.
The Arlington Metro stop sinks below a cemetery road; trains come and go without disturbing the galaxy of white headstones. I’ve stopped to visit that somber place before. So many dead, so many who made the “ultimate sacrifice.” Such a description, even for heroes, might give some Christians pause, yet it’s honored dead, above all else, that stitches an imagined community together, ensuring its survival.
The line between soldier and savior has always, perhaps, been thin. President Clinton, commemorating those who died on the beaches of Normandy, said, “they gave us our world” and again, “they saved the world.” I’ve attended funerals of military veterans and left wondering which received greater reverence: the elements of the Eucharist or the flag.
Across the Potomac, the Metro goes underground, disgorging passengers beneath Federal Triangle, the Smithsonian, L’Enfant Plaza. The people move freely, intent on their destination—museums, halls of government, and war memorials—without apparent concern for safety. Here, indeed, is a gift the honored dead helped grant: relative security in a dangerous world, such peace as the world gives.
My stop was Federal Center SW, three blocks from the Capitol, but I rode the escalator into the sunlight with no time for sightseeing. I was in town for meetings of a non-governmental committee on the health of Native American children. I much prefer our site visits to Alaska or the Southwest, but Washington meetings are part of our work, too, including advocacy on the Hill.
My work with Indian children began as an employee of that amalgam of good and ill that is the federal government. I left direct federal service in 1994 for many reasons, though my reluctant embrace of pacifism and the Gulf War played their part.
I know from history and experience how dependent Native communities are on the Feds, how Indians were forced into a devil’s bargain for survival. I also know how often they’ve suffered under progressive reformers busily laying flagstones to hell. I see my government advocacy for Native children as a form of harm reduction, limiting the damage.
But I know, too, how many young Indians eagerly enlist. Military service is one of the few places in the U.S. where Native Americans receive something like equal treatment. I also know how many warriors have died wearing the uniform of the country that hunted down their ancestors. The first American servicewoman to die in combat, a Hopi, was buried from the church on the Navajo reservation in which my son was baptized.
I can’t help but see these endless contradictions through the biblical lens of the powers and principalities, the complex, often obscure structures that we never live peaceably with, yet cannot seem to live without. New Testament language concerning the powers is notoriously fluid and unsystematic; finding a precise definition is worse than nailing Jell-o to the wall.
Yet for Paul, it seems, the powers are characters in a three-act play: created good, fallen, awaiting redemption. The powers give us what we want and they wound us with what they give.
All of that and more roiled about in my head on my walk to the Hill, past a line of students shouting for increased college scholarship funds, past the Museum of the American Indian, and past the Capitol reflecting pool where a bronze General Grant, astride his horse, commands metal foot soldiers, cavalry, and cannon against unseen enemies.